Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Maya Past and Present

How history(ies) is/are represented (or ignored, papered over, sanitized, fabricated) particularly in museums and historical sites, has been an interest of mine for at least the last two decades. So although my research in Guatemala does not specifically have to do with the museological representations of "Mayanness" or the Maya past, it is part of the overall context for my work. Part of what I'm trying to grapple with is the hyper-visibility of "the Maya" in the touristic imaginary -- and their utter marginalization and invisibility. How "the Maya" can be an icon for the country, and at the same time impoverished, disenfranchised, and viewed as backward, "folkloric" curiosities. Tourist brochures and websites tout "el mundo Maya" (the Maya world); placards, brochures and websites display images of indigenous women in hand-woven garments (or better yet, sitting at backstrap looms), costumed figures from patron-saint feasts, and spectacular photographs of ancient ruins. In tourist-saturated towns like Antigua, every five steps, it seems, a pedestrian stumbles over a placard advertising guided tours to Maya ruins.

There are also several museums devoted specifically to weaving (tejido in Spanish; kem in K'iche'), and I had wanted to visit those since part of my work here (and back home) involves a women's handicraft association and I thought it would be interesting to visit those museums together with the association members here in Guatemala. First, I thought they might be interested in looking at some of the historic patterns as well as weaving styles from other parts of Guatemala as weaving tends to be somewhat local (the "traditional" patterns in Chinique are different than those in Zacualpa, 20 km to the east, and from those in Santa Cruz del Quiché, about 20 km. to the west).  I also was curious about what their reaction might be to the way the exhibits are presented (I have no idea what that is, but I've been to enough ethnographic and "folkloric" museums to be familiar with the usual types of "folkloric" discourse on labels, catalogs and brochures).

I wrote to one of the museums asking if it might be possible to get a group rate, explaining that even the Q15 student admission was a bit high for women in an isolated rural community (I'll post some pictures of the road to Tapesquillo soon so you can see what I'm talking about - and the partially paved carretera is a major improvement over the paths that preceded it).  

But as I was poking about on the website of the Red  Centroamericano de Museos (Red CAMUS). 
I saw that there were some "regional" museums and found one in Santa Cruz del Quiché. I read the description of the CENTRO DE VISITANTES Y MUSEO DE SITIO DE K’UMARCAAJ (Visitors' Center and Museum of the K'umarcaaj Site). According to the guide it was open on Sundays from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and admission was Q10 for foreigners (someone needs to either tell the gatekeeper that, as I was charged Q30, or they need to update the website). I couldn't find any explicit instructions about how to get there, however.  I tried Googling the name and eventually came up with a page from the Lonely Planet guide to Guatemala that gave walking instructions: take 2da (segunda, or second) Avenida south from the Plaza, turn right on Calle 10 and walk for a couple of kilometers.  Seemed doable.

I had actually planned to drive as I was going to take a walk in the afternoon -- what I've usually done when I go to the part of Tapesquillo where I was heading this afternoon is to leave the car at a certain point and walk the last 20 minutes or so. But I decided to try and get directly to Calle 10 before I got to the Plaza, which turned out to be a mistake. I ran into the market, and Calle 10 doesn't run all the way through town, so rather than work my way around a bunch of one-way streets, I parked in front of a store (with the permission of the storekeeper) and set out on foot. I had never seen the south side of the market, or the southwest side of town. The only part I've seen is right around the central plaza. So my walk took me through residential neighborhoods, small stores and mostly residents on the streets, not shoppers, and less bustle. It was sunny and warm, and I worked my way onto Calle 10 and headed out of the more populated area onto a winding blacktop highway. The road dipped and rose and wound around past fields and a newly-built sporting arena, where some young men were playing soccer. A few vehicles passed me -- small gray mini-vans or camionetas emblazoned with Gumarkahaj/Ruinas/URL on the side or back.  URL stands for Universidad Rafael Landivar, one of the pre-eminent national universities that has a small campus in Sta  Cruz that I passed on the outskirts of town.  After the second van passed, I realized that Gumarkahaj was an alternate spelling of K'umarcaaj -- there is not really a single universally accepted Maya alphabet.  As might be obvious, the Maya had a hieroglyphic writing system but not a phonetic alphabet. In recent decades there have been efforts to develop a unified writing system for all 22 (or 23) Maya languages (don't ask me why there are different numbers; I think it probably has to do with whether certain languages that are very closely related are considered to be autonomous languages or dialects). Although there is a national academy of Maya languages and their spelling is pretty widely used, it is far from universal. And so, two spellings (at least) of the name of the site.

I passed few other people on the road. There were some people waiting outside their homes for the bus  to pass. A few trucks and motorcycles passed me, but I mostly had the road to myself. 

Finally I arrived at the entrance (photo on the left).  I walked up the road, passing one young couple embracing.  I would later find out that the ruins seem to be a popular spot for young couples who might not have private spaces in their homes (no photos of those; since they are seeking privacy, far be it from me to infringe upon that).

I walked up the now-gravel road and got to the gate. There were no signs directing visitors, although there seemed to be a fair amount of construction going on at the entrance (see next photo).

There was an older man who approached me as I walked up the path. I did not see him approach any other visitors, who walked on without checking in at what I assumed was the visitors' center (no signage anywhere other than that at the entrance).  He asked me what was my nationality; I said I was from the United States. He asked me to follow him and so I did. We walked into one of the buildings (not the one pictured here) and I found myself in a big, mostly empty room.  There were some random pieces of furniture and some office supplies on a desk or table. Nothing seemed very organized. The man scrambled around to find a packet of tickets and told me that the admission was Q30. Even though the website had said Q10 I didn't argue; it seems perfectly fine for foreigners to pay more and even the inflated admission was under $4. He fumbled around for a date stamp and fiddled with the wheel to get the right date (first he had it as January 36 but managed to hold the dial up to the light and change the 6 to 0.

He did not hand me a guide or a map, just my receipt, and there were no descriptive or explanatory materials whatsoever.  No signs, no labels, no map, nothing to indicate to visitors what they were seeing. 
There was a single painting depicting the "contact"/conquest on one wall of the office, but that was about as far as it went. I picked up my ticket and walked outside. There was a gravel path that meandered through towering pines that blocked out some of the sun.

I walked through the site, trying to remember the little that I had read in the Lonely Planet entry. The site was not supposed to be as majestic or well preserved as the better known ruins in the Petén or in the Yucatan.  It didn't seem to be that well known;  last night as I was thinking about making this excursion (prompted, in part, by the fact that there is very little to do in Chinique on a Sunday morning other than go to market, and since I am leaving for Guatemala City on Monday, I had no need to stock up on food; most people I know are either at market or church or working or all three), I was chatting with a Guatemalan Maya friend (who is from Quiché) on Facebook and mentioned this site. My friend said he had never been to the site; I'm not entirely certain he had heard of it. It's certainly not highlighted in any signage in the central part of Santa Cruz, but there seem to be very few foreign travelers who venture farther than Chichicastenango; the only other gringos I have seen during the past three week are some scarily blond and tall Mormons. 

There were about 15 or so other visitors to the site while I was there. One group of about 3-4 women and 4 children were sitting on a stretch of grass off the path. There were 3-4 couples wandering around embracing, and two men, one of whom had a camera. I was the only non-Guatemalan in the bunch.

A friend who saw the photos on Facebook asked me to give an narrative explanation, which prompted this blog post, but I really don't know what to say since I'm not an archaeologist and not an expert on the pre-conquest Maya.  There were some outcroppings that looked like they might have been walls of a large structure, or separate buildings overlooking a large court.                               

At the center was a large stone circle.  I don't know what it was used for. 

One of the few things I did recall reading was that although the site was a ruin, and archaeological excavations are still going on, the site is actively used by Maya priests and others for ceremonial purposes, and I certainly saw evidence of that. Even as I stood in the center of the "court', I could see that on

the rocks in front of a small alcove in the rocks, there were streaks of colored wax, from ceremonial candles that had been burned. Inside the alcove, there were more streaks of wax, some remnants of flowers, and also a 7-day candle in a tall glass.

Here is another alcove in the same cluster of rocks. 

And this is a cluster of what looked like chives or spring onions, with some melted wax on top.


After I left the central court I walked through the rest of the site. There was one other area with structures, and then the rest was woods with some paths. It was hard to know where the actual boundaries of the site were. I found a lot of evidence of human visitation: cigarette butts, wrappers from snacks and fast foods, and some offerings like the one to the left, that were simply left in the grass between the trees.

As I mentioned earlier, the site seems to be favored by young couples, who might be attracted by the relative isolation and the many wooded areas. As I was wandering along the wooded paths, I saw some suspicious movement a little bit ahead, partially obscured by the foliage -- a red baseball cap (obviously on someone's head) bobbing rhythmically against a tree trunk, and the vague shape of another human head. I realized that this must be one of the young couples having sex up against the tree trunk, so I turned and walked back. I was a bit frustrated because there was no way to move forward without intruding, but I was saved by a coughing fit. Since this is the dry season, the roads and streets are very dry and dusty; that plus the diesel fumes of trucks and buses along the roads mean that my nasal passages, throat and lungs have been a bit sensitive.  So I coughed for a bit (and drank some water), and then shortly thereafter the couple emerged and walked in a different direction and I was free to move forward.

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